The Icy Hot Wonders of Western Iceland
Beyond Reykjavik and the Golden Circle of Iceland lies a wonderland of caves, glaciers, waterfalls and rainbows.
(The following story and photographs, inspired by a hosted media visit, were published by Journal and Topics Media Group on December 9, 2019.)
The first thing you notice when driving through the western expanse of Iceland is the rainbows. I counted 10, 12, 15 or more in one day. No rain was in sight, so where were they coming from? Look, there’s another one.
Iceland is a volcanic island teeming with natural waterworks spewing from a super-heated underground and gushing from ice-capped mountains. By the numbers, it’s got 10,000 waterfalls, 800 hot springs and countless geysers, mud pots, steam vents and other geothermal features conducive to rainbow-making.
Our destination was two hours northeast of Reykjavik and the Golden Circle, the more popular–and crowded–tourist itinerary. At the wheel was our guide, Borgthor Stefansson, or Boggi for short.
The countryside was dominated by vast farmland with low-lying mountains in the distance. Fatted sheep looked like popcorn dotting the fields and hillsides. Noticeably absent are trees. They were razed centuries ago to build ships, heat homes and forge iron. Reforestation is happening, but many trees don’t take to lava fields, and Iceland has 35 active volcanoes.
A sample of Boggi’s humor: What do you call two trees side-by-side in Iceland? A forest.
We anchored at Hotel Husafell, a contemporary hotel with a Nordic vibe and panoramic mountain and valley views. The 48-room compound includes two restaurants and four thermal bathing pools. Dial 555 from your in-room telephone for a wake-up call if the Northern Lights appear. Alas, the colorful spectacle was dormant during our stay.
CAVES AND WATERFALLS
Obviously named, The Cave is Iceland’s largest known lava cave. It was formed from a volcanic eruption more than a millennium ago when molten lava and rock flowed beneath the earth’s surface. We donned helmets and headlamps, and our cave guide introduced himself with a name that confounds the American tongue. “If you can’t pronounce it, you can call me Brian,” he said with a wry smile. I’ll do that.
Brian led us a quarter mile through a lumpy flatland, actually a lava field, to a gargantuan hole. There, a catwalk of 130 stairs led down to a boardwalk that meandered through the subterranean cavern. We strolled past dramatic rock and lava formations, gleaming crystals, patches of never-melting ice, and piles of jagged boulders.
The Cave maintains a temperature of about 32 degrees, plus or minus 6 degrees. Summer visitors sometimes tour in shorts and flip-flops, Brian said.
Hraunfossar and Barnafoss are adjacent waterfalls but very different phenomena. Both crash into the azure Hvita River. Hraunfossar is a majestic curtain of falls, six-tenths of a mile wide, that emerge from clear water springs beneath a lava field. Upstream, the river narrows and Barnafoss plunges into a steep canyon and forms violent rapids cutting swaths and arches through the rock.
AN ICY BLUE WONDERLAND
We had seen glaciers from afar, but an attraction called Into the Glacier takes you through a manmade tunnel and the magnificent blue ice buried deep. The Langjokull glacier is the second-largest in the country, reaching 4,600 feet high above sea level. (The smallest, named Ok, has shrunk so much due to climate change, it was recently delisted as a glacier. Planet Pluto sympathizes.)
A Hummer-like snow bus took us up the mountainside. The higher our elevation, the more barren the terrain became. The temperature dove, and the wind whipped harshly. The snow was knee-high when we offloaded the bus and dashed for the tunnel entrance. Doormen were shoveling furiously to keep it open.
But the interior, a temperate 32 degrees in comparison, was an exotic frozen world of hallways, alcoves, pools and crevasses. One room is set up as a bar, another as a chapel. All of it was awash in a palette of blue, from pale aquamarine to deep indigo.
“You can drink the water” that was melting down the walls, we were told. I filled my water bottle and tasted the purest, cleanest water ever.
ICELANDIC FARM LIFE
For lunch we stopped at Bjarteyjarsandur, a fifth-generation working farm and guesthouse on the Hvalfjordur fjord. Visitors can participate in seasonal chores such as sheep-shearing and mussel-picking. Or, like us, they can eat and pet the animals. As we awaited our meal, Boggi played a sonata on the piano in the farmhouse dining room.
We feasted on smoked trout, slow-cooked lamb, garden vegetables, and a green salad with oranges and pomegranates topped with an herbal marinade. Many ingredients are grown on the farm or plucked from the mountains like the dandelions that went into our welcome drink.
“Most people think of dandelions as weeds,” said our host Arnheidur. “We think they are gold. We use the flower for lemonade and syrup. The leaves, when they are small, make salad. When they get big, they are too bitter.”
At the farm, we learned about the native sheep and horses. Iceland has populations of 350,000 people, 90,000 horses and 900,000 sheep.
Sheep and lambs, prized for their wool and meat, by law spend summers roaming wherever they please. In fall, farmers venture out on foot and horseback–and with their sheepherding dogs–to gather them for winter, a practice known as “rettir.” Afterward, they celebrate with grand parties.
Icelandic horses have a different resume. Small and sturdy, they are highly protected riding horses. To keep bloodlines pure, an Icelandic horse taken out of the country, perhaps for a show, cannot return.
“You can’t bring back any bits and bridles, either, because they could bring in diseases,” Boggi said.
We left the farm to immerse ourselves in the therapeutic waters at Krauma spa. The venue sits on the banks of the Deildartunguhver hot spring, the most powerful in Europe and a consistent 212 degrees. Krauma’s six baths vary in temperature by mixing water from the spring with runoff from the Ok mountain icecap, the one that is no longer considered a glacier. One bath is heart-thumping cold. Also onsite are steam baths, relaxation lounge with fireplace and soft music, and a restaurant with an Icelandic menu.
We lolled in the baths while servers brought us wine and cocktails. In the background, where the mighty Deildartunguhver met the frigid air, a steamy mist arose. And a rainbow. ###